Saturday, January 30, 2010

Remember Pick-Up-Sticks?

Do you know what this is? I'm not sure, either. It's a sculpture, of sorts, made from unfinished 2x4's and 2x2's. Up close, they appear to be pieced together haphazardly, like over-sized toothpicks, but when you step back it looks more uniform. It was erected last month on the public plaza at the Corniche beach, and as you can see, people ride bikes and walk all around it.

It has seven sides, or arms, or legs, or whatever they are, so the general consensus is that it represents the seven Emirates. Of course, people assume that about anything here that comes in sevens, so who knows for sure? Maybe it's a giant pick-up-sticks game.

(By the way, for all you friends having fun in the freezing rain today, it was a glorious 80 degrees and sunny at the beach. Just lettin' you know.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

A moment for Moosa

"Bad things do happen, of course. It's just that they don't seem to happen nearly as often as in the States. And stranger-on-stranger crimes are rare."

A few days before I casually typed those words in early December, a four-year-old boy named Moosa had been found dead in a restroom at his neighborhood mosque in Dubai. Police soon learned that a man had lured him away from his friends with the promise of an Eid holiday gift, then raped and murdered him.

The man confessed and the trial was swift. The story that unfolded was all too familiar: the gruesome details of the crime; the lonely, pathetic history of the killer; the grief of the family.

This week, the man was sentenced to death by firing squad. Curiously, before he is executed he must serve a six-month sentence for drinking alcohol on the night before the murder.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say with this post. Maybe that I was wrong; that even one such horrific crime makes a place just as bad as anywhere else. Maybe I feel guilty for not thinking of Moosa when I wrote that item in December. Mostly, though, I'm just hoping you'll take a moment to think of him today.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Which one of these does not belong?

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is coming to Abu Dhabi, it was announced yesterday, for one of the biggest mixed martial arts events in history. Two title fights, the sport's biggest stars, hours of bone-crunching entertainment as fighters from various disciplines bash each other bloody inside an eight-sided cage.

This country has a thing for big-time sports events. It's part of the effort to promote Abu Dhabi and Dubai as "world class" cities, along with top-flight museums (branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre are under construction), big-name concerts (from the New York Philharmonic to Beyonce) and star-studded film festivals.

I understand the attraction to Formula One racing (it's pretty obvious; the local drivers all think they're Jenson Button). Likewise the golf and tennis tournaments with all-star fields, and certainly the Club World Cup soccer tournament.

And given the interest (and investments) of certain sheikhs, staging the world's richest horse race at a new $2.7 billion race track makes perfect sense.

But Ultimate Fighting?

Admittedly, I don't know a lot about the sport, but I've seen enough to know that its brutality seems an odd fit with the country's other efforts to gain exposure. Whether you like it or loathe it, there's no arguing it's violent – John McCain once described it as "human cockfighting" – and despite rule changes to make it more palatable to the masses, it's still banned in some U.S. states.

But its popularity is rapidly growing worldwide, and the UAE's interest is no passing fancy. Two weeks ago, a government-owned entertainment company bought a 10 percent stake in the company that owns UFC, and it has the support of a sheikh who is a jiu-jitsu blackbelt and an avid fan of mixed martial arts.

It may not fit ... but with backing like that, I'm guessing it will be a hit.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

An ambassador in every cab

All the cabbies there are Omani nationals – it's the law, one of them told me. In the UAE, your driver might be Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Indian or even Sri Lankan, but he will never, ever be Emirati.

The Omani drivers are proud of their jobs, and proud of their country. They want to show it off, and they want you like it. They want you to like them.

There are no meters in the cabs, and when you ask about it they just shrug and say don't worry, so it's up to you to negotiate a fare. Which is hard to do when you don't know where anything is, and don't know the going rate.

The rookie mistake (which I made, twice) is to not even try to set the price up front. You get where you're going and you offer what seems a fair amount, and they look at you with hurt expressions and say, "Really? Is that all? I thought you liked my taxi ..."

And when you finally draw the line and say "No more," they laugh and clap you on the back and say thanks. I think they they just enjoy the game.

Hussain certainly did. He's the guy in the photo, who drove me up and down the coast around Muscat, from the cool port neighborhood of Muttrah, where I was staying, south to the new Shangri La resort, at the end of a highway cut through the mountains for the sole purpose of getting to the hotel.

Hussain was a trip. He was funny and smart, and proud that he spoke five languages. We were walking down to the beach at the Shangri La and overheard a man and his son talking. "They're speaking Persian. Watch this!" he whispered to me, and called out to them. A five minute conversation ensued, mostly (he told me) about how impressed they were with his excellent Persian skills.

But he was proudest, without a doubt, of his English. He assured me that Americans spoke the best English, and he had trouble understanding the British and Australians, and don't even get him started on the Italians and the French ...

We had lunch together and he told me about his travels and his family, proudly showing off photos of his wife and daughter. He good-naturedly ribbed me about wearing shorts ("Why you not wear trousers? We won't be able to get into the palace!")

Every five minutes he would ask if I was OK, and if I liked his country, and every time I reassured him that yes, Oman is a fine place, he beamed proudly and nodded to himself, happy to have won over another tourist.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

48 hours in Oman

Two days in Oman, a weekend road trip to Muscat, 48 eye-opening hours, and then home again with so many good, unexpected stories, I don't know where to start ...

With Mr. Andy from Manila, the Filipino musician who interrupted Disco Inferno night at the Falaj Hotel to step up and deliver a searing rendition of the guitar solo from Hotel California?

With the Pakistani bar where men sat in rows of straight-backed chairs watching a trio of maidens from their home country perform come-hither dances, while the manager bought me a drink and explained, passionately, that nothing bad could happen to the girls because as soon as the bar closed they were whisked away and "locked up" until the next night's performance?

With that wicked cut I made on the eight ball that endeared me to my Omani pool partner and led to us commanding the table for five straight games?

With Olaf and Anna, the charming couple from The Netherlands who shared after-dinner wine and stories and a spectacular view from the rooftop restaurant at the Marina Hotel?

With the beauty of a place where the mountains do, literally, tumble into the sea, and the unassuming city finds purchase in whatever nooks and crannies it can?

Or with Mr. Hussain, the world's loudest cab driver, who practically bullied me into taking a sight-seeing ride but turned out to be the world's best tour guide, a proud speaker of five languages (I heard him use them all) and Oman's best PR agent?

I can't choose ...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Road trip: Muscat or bust!

I'm headed to Oman tomorrow morning for a couple of days, to check out the seaside town of Muscat. No one seems to know whether you can get from here to there by bus, but I'm going to give it a try.

(Bus to Al Ain, find some way across the Omani border, then another bus to Muscat ... how hard can it be?)

Not sure what to expect. But if I haven't posted a blog by early next week, someone send lawyers, guns and money!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Random thought ...

Washing up the dinner dishes, listening to Neil Young, sipping a last glass of wine ...
Sometimes, Monday night in Abu Dhabi seems a lot like Monday night in Atlanta.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

What, no kumquats from Kolkata?

A trip to the grocery store here is like a visit to the United Nations. Here's what went into my shopping cart tonight at Spinneys:

- Avocados from Australia
- Peppers from Holland
- Potatoes from Saudi Arabia
- Onions and apples from the U.S.
- Oranges from South Africa
- Lemons from Egypt
- Lettuce from Iran
- Bananas from the Philipines
- Asparagus from Thailand
- Garlic from China
- Okra from India

And that's just the fruits and vegetables.

The rest of the store, too, is filled with food from around the world. The reason for this diversity is, the UAE imports 80 percent of its food. There's not a whole lot you can grow in the desert, I suppose, so just like the U.S. is an oil dependent country, this is a food dependent country.

When I was told before I came to Abu Dhabi that anything in the grocery stores at home would be available here, I wasn't sure whether to believe it. But sure enough, you can find everything from Grape-Nuts to granola bars, peanut butter to Pringles. (But alas, no Wheat Thins!)

The produce is remarkably fresh, by the way, considering it all comes from somewhere else, and it's very reasonably priced, too. Four good-sized tomatoes for 11 dirhams? That's three bucks – let's see you beat that in mid-winter at your neighborhood Publix.

There's even pork, in the stores that cater to westerners. If you crave bacon or ham or sausage, it's kept in a separate room at the back of the store, with a sign over the door saying:


Buying meat is about the only thing that's a challenge, and only because I'm math challenged. But quick, you tell me: is a steak that sells for 115.50 dirhams per kilogram a good cut of beef? I can hardly do the math one way, much less two. Sounds like a lot, right?

Now that I'm back at home, using my calculator, I can tell you: I bought that steak for $14 a pound ... I think. All I know is, it tasted great in my fajitas tonight.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The villa life, Abu Dhabi style

Ah, the villa life ...

It's not what you might think. Lots of people live in villas here. As in, lots of people live in the same villa.

There are many beautiful, massive single family villas, for people with money. I would love to live in one someday. But most villas – even new ones – are divided into apartments. There must be eight units spread out across the three floors of my villa, although I have not explored every nook and cranny.

It's not a bad deal, really. Villas are nicer than apartment buildings, on the whole. Mine is on a quiet street in Al Bateen, with a shaded patio and lots of plants. It's private; there's the gate to the street, and a big, imposing front door that opens onto a common area. You get more for your money in a villa, too, although my rent is still at least twice what you would pay for a similar place in Atlanta.

It's just not the luxurious lifestyle often associated with the word "villa." My apartment is a small studio, maybe 12 feet by 20 feet, with a bath and a tiny kitchen off to the side. (The kitchen is so small, there's no space for a stove or refrigerator. I had to put those in the main room.)

But it has 12-foot ceilings and cool tile floors, and I've managed to comfortably fit in a bed, a sofa, a desk, a wardrobe, a flat-screen television, a bookcase and a coffee table, plus the kitchen stuff. What more does a man need? It's cozy, and it's home, for now.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A daily reminder

Fajr, dhuhr, asr, maghrib, isha.

Pre-dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset, evening.

They are the five prayer calls of Islam, and it doesn't take long here before they become touchstones throughout your day. You can hear them almost everywhere, indoors or out, which is not surprising when you consider there are more than 5,000 mosques in Abu Dhabi. There are three within 200 yards of my apartment, and at least 10 within a one-mile radius. There's even one on the grounds at work.

There was a time when a man climbed the minaret at each mosque and issued the call to prayer, but these days, most mosques broadcast a recorded call over loudspeakers.

They all begin at the same moment, which can create an eerie sound when you're in an open area and can hear the calls from several mosques at once. This is especially noticeable along the Corniche, where you can hear the calls echoing off the towers of the city and booming back toward the beach.

It's a unique sound, not quite a melody but pleasant nonetheless. It can be jarring when it wakes you in the pre-dawn darkness – somehow, it seems louder then – but most times, for non-Muslims, it's just a subtle reminder of the passing of the day.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Office pools without borders

I'm sitting here enjoying a little slice of Americana this morning – an office pool for the NFL playoffs. I'm not filling it out yet, just looking at it and listening to Jeffrey Foucault's Ghost Repeaters and savoring the moment a little longer.

It's not hard to keep up with American sports here – thanks, – but it is a little hard to keep up your interest sometimes. The novelty of staying up until 1 a.m. for NFL games wears off after a while. Likewise with getting up at 5 a.m. to watch the World Series. I've never seen a game from any U.S. sport in a bar – they're too busy showing soccer and rugby and European Tour golf.

But you can usually find someone to talk sports with, either an American with a favorite team back home, or a expat from elsewhere who may never have been to an NFL game but frets over his Fantasy team just as fervently as any Yank. I've been to football watching parties where the laptop got passed around more than the beer.

I just didn't pay as much attention as usual this year. There aren't a lot of games on TV, I got here too late to join the fantasy league, the Bucs were awful, the Falcons were up-and-down, I missed a chance for a return visit to Lambeau Field ... all of that cut into my interest.

But enough with the disclaimers. I still should be able to outsmart a bunch of Britons and Aussies and Canadians, right? Let's make some picks.
Wild card round: Packers over Cardinals, Cowboys over Eagles, Bengals over Jets, Patriots over Ravens.
Conference semis: Packers over Saints, Vikings over Cowboys, Colts over Bengals, Chargers over Patriots.
Conference finals: Vikings over Packers (sorry, Jim!), Colts over Chargers.
Super Bowl: Colts over Vikings in a classic, 35-34.

There, that was easy. I'll expect you to be thinking of me when you see Peyton Manning hoist the Lombardi Trophy on February 7.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Going smoke free in the UAE

They're doing their best to make me like this place.

The president signed a new law yesterday that pretty much bans smoking in public. That's a big deal here, where every bar and restaurant you walk into reeks of cigarette smoke -- and so do you, by the time you leave. It makes you think twice about ordering food, because you know you're likely to have someone next to you blowing smoke your way throughout the meal.

About 25 percent of the population are daily smokers, and they're not shy about lighting up. No one asks if you mind if they smoke. A few people might hold their cigarettes off to the side to keep the smoke from drifting your way, but not many.

But the government's not messing around with this new law. You can't sell tobacco products in residential areas; businesses must have a permit to set up separate smoking areas; you're not allowed to smoke in your car if a child is riding with you; and all tobacco advertisement is banned. Businesses can lose their licenses or be shut down if they're caught violating the ban.

Now if I can just get them to do something about the rent prices ...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

This run was for the birds

I'm a firm believer that you should always try to keep moving when you go for a run -- no breaks! -- but I made an exception this morning. I was cruising along an Al Bateen side street when I came upon a man in a dishdash standing in a small grassy area, tending to four beautiful falcons.

I stopped and asked if I could look at them. He spoke no English and I speak no Arabic, so it wasn't a long conversation. The man, whose name was Mohammed, was obviously proud of his birds, however, and he seemed pleased that I was so impressed by them.

I didn't have a camera, of course, but the birds looked a lot like the one in this photo. Three of them sat tethered to their perches and preened in the sunshine, while he held the fourth on his arm. It tried to fly away when I first approached, but he said some soothing words and soon it calmed down and returned. The bird seemed to keep a wary eye on me after that.

We "chatted" for a few minutes -- he wanted to know if I was from America, and I asked him the birds' names. He told me, pointing them out one by one like a proud parent, but I could not pronounce their names, much less spell them.

Soon, I said goodbye (ma'a salama, one of the few Arabic expressions I know) and resumed my run. Abu Dhabi, by the way, is a terrible place to run in the summer months -- 95 degrees at 10 pm, are you kidding? -- but right now it's gorgeous. It was 57 when I rolled out the door at 9 am, which is just about perfect in my book.

The streets around Al Bateen are ideal, too: wide sidewalks, including a stretch with a soft surface; very little traffic (but be careful of the cars that are out there; they speed like crazy); several tree-shaded pathways; and immaculate greenery and parks. There are no hills, of course, which is great right now but probably doesn't do much to prepare me for a race in the States.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A grand opening surprise

Ever wonder what you might do with that spare $10 billion you have lying around? Perhaps you should have loaned it to Dubai; maybe then the world's tallest building would have been renamed in your honor.

The Burj Dubai officially opened today, to much fanfare. If you've been reading, you know what an impressive thing it is; at 828 metres, more than twice as tall as the Empire State Building, a sparkling tower looming into the clouds high above the rest of Dubai's skyscrapers.

Only it's not the Burj Dubai anymore. Tonight it was renamed the Burj Khalifa, out of respect for Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the President of the UAE ... and the man who last month put up $10 billion to help Dubai get through its financial problems.

I'd say he got his money's worth; the Burj is attracting international attention on an unprecedented scale. It is THE place to be in Dubai; even we spent New Year's Eve in the shadow of the Burj, with thousands of others, watching a spectacular water show in the lake fronting the tower and marveling at its overpowering presence.

And by the way, if you had only $10 million or so to spare, you could have at least purchased the entire 100th floor. That's what Indian expatriate businessman Bavaguthu Shetty did; he said he plans to model the 15,000 square feet into guest houses for friends and family.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Advantage, Abu Dhabi

I'm not a huge tennis fan, but the chance to see the top two players in the world on New Year's Day was too good to pass up. So I rousted myself from bed and headed out to Zayed Sports City to watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who were given a bye into the semifinals of the Capitala World Championships.

It was a great day. The sun was shining, the cozy stadium was mostly full, and everyone was in holiday spirits. Like most sports events around here, they did not have assigned seating, so I was able to move around the stadium. It was a diverse crowd; at various times I sat alongside Americans, Germans, Australians, two kids who I think were Egyptian, a French family and two elderly Emirati women.

Nadal held up his end of the deal with a fast-paced, spirited win over David Ferrer. But Federer looked rusty and disinterested in a loss to Robin Soderling. (Rumor has it, Federer and Soderling had a big time at the New Year's Eve party at Emirates Palace, which may have accounted for their lackluster play.)

The event is really more of an exhibition than a tournament, and Federer didn't seem to mind that he lost. I didn't either, really. He was my favorite player until last year at Wimbledon, where he won his record 15th grand slam title. That part was fine. But immediately after that epic match against Andy Roddick, he reached into his equipment bag and donned a pullover with "15" embroidered on it. Was he that sure he would win? Did he have a plain pullover in the bag, too, in case he lost? Not a big deal, I guess, but it just seemed like a crass move from a guy with such a classy reputation.

After the matches, cabs were scarce, and I ended up sharing a ride with two guys on holiday from the Ukraine. They were having a blast, and why not? It was 14 below in the Ukraine, they said, with not much to do. Abu Dhabi was pretty much their idea of heaven.